Tag Archives: reading instruction

Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

Components of Quality Reading Instruction

There are five elements of reading instruction-comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, phonics (word study), and phonemic awareness (Sprenger, 2013). Walk into any primary classroom, and you will likely have no trouble seeing the first two or three in action on a day to day basis. Teachers everywhere understand that they are essential skills to teach and you will see them being taught despite the differences in curriculums and reading materials being used.

Phonemic Awareness

We know that being a competent reader means reading with understanding, expression, and decoding unfamiliar words when necessary. But is there more to being a good reader than that? The answer is yes. There are other important skills that are essential in learning to read. According to Reading Rockets, a website devoted to educating parents and teachers about reading and writing, children should “develop an ear for language” and a prerequisite skill for reading. This is called phonemic awareness and it specifically describes the ability to hear individual sounds in words. Phonemic awareness helps students blend sounds together to form words, isolate the beginning, middle, or end sounds in a word, identify which words have the same beginning or ending sounds, identify how many syllables a word has, or manipulate phonemes to form new words.

Phonemic awareness activities are auditory. There are many activities and resources that you can use to teach it. A simple method involves using pictures. For example, you can show students a picture of an object and ask them to identify the beginning sound. In addition, you can prompt them to identify other words that have the same beginning sound as cat.

Sample Phonemic Awareness Activity


Teacher Language:

What’s the picture of? “Cat”

What is the beginning sound? /c/

What is another word that starts with /c/?

Children who lack phonemic awareness skills will struggle in reading. In fact, according to Marilee Sprenger, author of Wiring the Brain for Reading, along with letter identification, phonemic awareness is a predictor of reading success (Sprenger, 2013).

The state of Wisconsin now has reading screeners, such as the PALS assessment, to help identify students at risk for reading difficulty. These screeners assess a child’s phonemic awareness skills. Students in kindergarten, first, or second grade may be lacking the ability to blend words, or separate a word into its individuals sounds. It is essential for the teacher to explicitly teach these skills in order to help the child become a successful reader. In fact, according to Marilee Sprenger, author of Wiring the Brain for Reading, “the absence of phonemic awareness is the greatest problem of struggling readers.”

When planning for instruction, it is important to understand that phonemic awareness develops along a continuum. Students learn rhyming first, then the ability to separate a sentence into its individual words, and then move on to syllable and onset rime blending and segmenting. The most difficult skill along the continuum is phoneme isolation and manipulation.

Research indicates that it necessary to devote only 8-15 hours to phonemic awareness instruction. Once students have acquired these skills, it is no longer necessary to continue allocating time to them. Students also generally acquire these foundational reading skills in pre-k to first grade. According to K 12 Reader Reading Instruction Resources, students will benefit from small group instruction focusing on only 2-3 phonemic awareness skills at a time.

image credit below: snippetsbysarah.blogspot.com


Linda Dorn and Tammy Jones explain in Apprenticeship in Literacy, that “phonics is the relationship between the letters in written words and the sounds in spoken words.” Reading Rockets explains that children are taught “that the letter n represents the sound /n/, and that it is the first letter in words such as nose, nice and new.”

Phonics instruction is grounded in print. The focus is helping students learn to match sounds to the letters they make and to teach rules for pronunciation (Cognitive Elements of Reading, n.d.). It goes beyond knowing the sounds of the 26 consonants and vowels. Students first learn letters, sounds, consonants and short vowels, and then they learn more complex skills such as final e, consonant clusters and blends, vowel patterns such as oo, au, aw (variant vowels), ou, ow, oi, oy (diphthongs), long vowel spelling patterns, silent letters, and open and closed syllables (Dorn & Jones, 2012).

image credit below: http://bogglesworldesl.com/consonantblendcards.htm


Which comes first?

According to the SEDL Reading Resources website, phonemic awareness and phonics are not necessarily related skills. It is possible for a child to have phonemic awareness while having very limited exposure to print.

You might be wondering which comes first-phonics or phonemic awareness instruction. The answer is simple. Before formally entering school, while they are sitting on the lap of a caring adult, listening to stories being read aloud, children are already developing an ear for language. They are already developing phonemic awareness.

Once students have developed their phonemic awareness, it is important to teach children phonics. According to Peter Barnes, author of Phonics Instruction Activates Brain Area Best Wired for Reading, phonics instruction actually increases brain function in struggling readers. The left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for language and visual regions, changes to resemble the brain function of a successful reader.

Growing Successful Readers

Knowing that phonemic awareness and phonics are not one in the same skills is one of the first steps in understanding the two concepts, and the research speaks for itself. A lack of phonemic awareness is the cause of reading difficulties in struggling readers and systematic phonics instruction has shown to activate regions of the brain and change brain function. It is important for all primary teachers to understand how to teach phonemic awareness and phonics in order to help every child be a successful reader.


Cognitive Elements of Reading. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.sedl.org/reading/framework/elements.html#phoneme

Dorn, L. J., & Jones, T. (2012). Apprenticeship in literacy: transitions across reading and writing, K-4. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse .

Sprenger, M. (2013). Wiring the brain for reading: brain-based strategies for teaching literacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Teaching Phonemic Awareness – Effective Strategies. (2010, November 28). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.k12reader.com/effective-strategies-for-teaching-phonemic-awareness/


Inquiry Learning

comprehension and collaboration

I have had the privilege of working with a wonderful team of teachers. I am in the home stretch of my tenth year of teaching and I often will look back to my first years. I marvel at how little I really knew, but then feel blessed that my fellow colleagues had freely shared best practice instructional strategies.

Now, several years later, and a lot wiser, I understand the true purpose behind what we did. For example, in Science, our team leader developed a wonderful unit about the sun, Earth, and moon that required students to research self-selected questions and communicate new learning. Kids loved doing this then and continue to this day!

“Comprehension and Collaboration,” by well known authors Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey, helped me understand the purpose, and rewards, of fostering collaboration in our classrooms. Reading this book came at just the right time for me since Wisconsin educators are looking at the new “Smarter Balanced Assessment” that their students will soon be taking. High school students will be expected to research a topic together and will be assessed on the outcome. I couldn’t wrap my head around it initially. (I was always one who did well on tests and I loved to demonstrate what I learned. My grade was in my own hands and this was reassuring to me.) That was until I read this book. The truth of the matter is that is what employers are looking for. They desire individuals who can collaborate and work together towards a common goal.

As a literacy coach in my district, I have led traditional book studies with teachers over the last few years. This year we went the non-traditional route. Our study was designed around the inquiry circle format to give teachers the experience of selecting questions they wanted answered about reader’s workshop, and then researching and collaborating to find the answers. This is just what students would experience.

What did the group decide to research about reader’s workshop? They wondered how to best structure their reader’s workshop block to meet the needs of all learners. They also wanted to learn more about about the schedules other middle school teachers from different districts have.

The last step in the process is “taking the learning public.” This isn’t really different than what we have done in the past. (O.k…well it is really different if you relied on question/answer type worksheets to assess student understanding…) Students are given the opportunity to choose a way to synthesize what they have learned and share it with those around them. Their audience could be fellow classmates or even the public. This crucial step prompts them to take what they learned, put it into their own words, and then gives them the freedom to choose a format that fits well with their learning styles. Tech savy kids can create videos or blog posts, visual learners can show of their creativity by making a poster. The possibilities are limitless.

Oh, and did I mention the number of Common Core Standards that inquiry learning addresses? It’s astounding. Because I don’t believe in everyone re-inventing the wheel in education, I am sharing the inquiry timeline/format that I created for the study in my district. I am also including some sample response options. Some are ones that belong to my students and others are ones that I created myself because I never just talk with others about something when I am presenting something new. I try it myself. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the inquiry process.

Narwahls (Click on the link to the left to view an example of how a first grader synthesized her new learning and answered her guiding research questions.)

The above video is an example of how a visual learner might exercise their creativity and put together a project that outlines a reader’s workshop block to help viewers visualize the concepts being shared.

Sample Response Option Journal (Click on the link to the left to see another response option.  This one is a journal entry in which I reflect upon how I have implemented reader’s workshop and how my understanding of reading instruction has developed and been refined over the past several years of my teaching career.)

2013MiddleSchoolBookStudy (1) (Click on the link to the left if you are interested in studying the book “Comprehension and Collaboration” by Harvey and Daniels and are interested in trying inquiry learning for yourself.)